Be still my beating heart

Image courtesy of The Curated Tee

My four-year-old has a dresser drawer full of cute t-shirts with Valentine’s style hearts on them. What she needed was a shirt with an anatomically accurate drawing of a human heart on it. Thanks to artist Derrick Nau’s “Heartbeat Tee” and the folks at The Curated Tee*, she now has one. Actually, she has that one. Exactly that one – the one on the left.

The Curated Tee was founded by Vanessa (co-host of the Pop My Culture Podcast) and Mandy . They unnamedcollaborate with artists to produce one t-shirt per month (available by subscription or individually the following month).

To be honest, they won me and my money* over with the “Heartbeat Tee”. It is not just the beauty of Derrick Nau’s illustration, which is considerable. The mature choice to recognize this piece of science art as both aesthetic, educational, and appropriate for young children makes me willing to trust The Curated Tee as curators:

His image is intricate and beautiful and encourages children to stop and think about what’s inside their bodies and what makes them tick.

So often our science-inspired art exists in its own niche. The merchandise can become kitschy and primarily signal our membership in the tribe of nerds/geeks/etc. Here, Derrick Nau’s anatomical heart illustration stands next to a lovely image of friends riding bikes – freeing us to appreciate both its beauty and the information it contains. Science is treated as a normal part of a complete life.

The Curated Tee is also collaborative with artists, placing the artists front and center. That includes giving them a percentage of sales (no, not everyone does) and not requiring submission of t-shirt ideas (link to PDF) in order to start a collaboration. No one loses by eagerly acknowledging the creative contributions of all involved in putting that shirt on your kid. It is also a great way to be introduced to a new artist and their inspirations.

While I’m not thrilled to bits that The Curated Tee uses American Apparel as a supplier of the base shirts, I am sympathetic to the decision on business grounds.

My primary disappointment is that the shirts currently only go up to size 4T, which is why my family only has a three month subscription (and why I don’t have an anatomical heart t-shirt for myself). I have been assured by Vanessa and Mandy that they intend to expand the shirt sizes offered after they get through this “start-up” period.

There is more, beyond the science art shirt and artistic collaboration, that I like about The Curated Tee. First, it does what it says on the tin. The shirts are very soft and comfortable. The shirt printing looks just as good as the one on the website. The image above might as well be a picture of the shirt I pulled out of the bag. My daughter was fascinated and curious about the image. Second, the shirts are gender neutral. I’m tired of having to go shopping in the “boys” section to get me daughter the cool dinosaur shirt she needs.

If you are going to call yourself The Curated Tee, you better go a good job of curation. Based on these initial offerings, they are living up to their name.

*Yup, not an advertisement. I paid for my subscription out of my own pocket.

Intergalactic Planetary

HD_40307g_20x30A few weeks ago, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released a series of three retro-travel posters promoting the exoplanet discoveries of the Kepler Space Telescope. The focus on travel to other planets and the style of the posters reminded me immediately of the artwork used by the Intergalactic Travel Bureau (art created by Steve Thomas) in their outreach. The Intergalactic Travel Bureau uses Thomas’ art in combination with in-person interactions with performers playing the part of a space travel agent to engage and excite audiences.

While the retro-poster concept is far from unique, the use of the phrase “Exoplanet Travel Bureau” made me wonder if the folks at JPL were inspired by the Intergalactic Travel Bureau project or if they had stumbled onto a similar idea independently. So I asked them; and they actually answered.

The concept for JPL’s posters was developed by David Delgado. Delgado collaborated with Joby Harris and Dan Goods to create the posters, according to Elizabeth Landau (JPL Media Relations Specialist). Joby Harris* said:

The existing posters by other artists out there were not inspiration for ours, but rather confirmation that our posters in progress would be well received.

While I’m a bit disappointed that the JPL team was unaware of Steve Thomas’ posters (the Intergalactic Travel Bureau has also received NASA funding), it is admittedly difficult to be aware of everything on the Internet these days. I do hope that the creative convergence of JPL and the Intergalactic Travel Bureau might lead to creative cooperation on science outreach efforts in the future.


Art of Science: A Moth’s Brief Life in Art


Artist Elsabé Dixon grew up raising silkworms in cardboard boxes as a child in South Africa.  Now based in Virginia, Dixon has made her childhood hobby the source of her art, now on display in a unique residency and installation called LIVE/LIFE at Arlington’s Artisphere through February 22.

In the Artisphere studio, Dixon and helpers first constructed an environment for domesticated silkworms (Bombyx mori) to live out a life cycle – hatching from eggs to caterpillars, eating mulberry leaves, spinning cocoons, pupating, mating and dying – and then created sculpture using what was left behind, including twigs, empty cocoons, salt and even silkworm poop.

Detail from LIVE/LIFE, Elsabe Dixon, Mixed Media, 2014-15
Detail from LIVE/LIFE, Elsabe Dixon, Mixed Media, 2014-15

Dixon sees the life cycle of the Bombyx mori – the only truly domesticated insect in the world – as a means of investigating many aspects of life. The first and most obvious is the ephemeral and ever-changing nature of life, but the work examines many other issues, including our relationships with society, nature and the built environment.

There are no barriers between the insects and the audience here. Visitors in the earlier months of the residency were free to touch the caterpillars and the moths. When I visited earlier in January, the moths were all dead, but I was able to touch the silk cocoons left behind.

The sculptural installation that Dixon has constructed, first for the silkworms to live in and then using their products and detritus, is based on microscopic photographs of silkworm particles. Made from materials including rubber, cut-up cardboard paper towel  tubes, discarded silk cocoons, mulberry branches and, yes, piles of caterpillar poop, the installation looks organic, natural, and utterly at home in its modern-art setting.

LIVE/LIFE is open to the public Thursday and Friday evenings as well as Sunday afternoons, when the artist welcomes visitors to join in conversations with her and others in the field of art, medicine, engineering and food production.

The Art of Science: Biologically-Enhanced Fashion

Mushtari, from the Wanderers project
Mushtari, from the Wanderers project

This is the Björkiest thing I have ever seen.  Wanderers,  a collaborative project to create digitally grown and 3d printed wearables that could embed living matter, looks like a perfect fit for the Icelandic chanteuse, who is famous for her biophilia and wildly adventurous fashion sense.

A team led by Neri Oxman of MIT and Christoph Bader & Dominik Kolb of Deskriptiv is working on a computational growth process which can mimic a wide variety of growing structures.  Based on growth patterns found in nature, computer models create shapes that adapt to their environment.  Once a design is generated, a 3D printer creates a wearable structure.

Filip Visnjic at Creative Applications Network explains: “Starting with a seed, the process simulates growth by continuously expanding and refining its shape. The wearables are designed to interact with a specific environment characteristic of their destination and generate sufficient quantities of biomass, water, air and light necessary for sustaining life: some photosynthesize converting daylight into energy, others bio-mineralize to strengthen and augment human bone, and some fluoresce to light the way in pitch darkness.”

In the long term, the team hopes to produce 3D printed microfluidic devices through which to pump living matter (such as photosynthetic bacteria) to bring the Wanderers to life. In the short term, they’ve created an amazingly hypnotic video showing how the computer simulates growth patterns (watch it here) and some stunning molded plastic breastplates and even a skirt. The pieces, which look a lot like glistening external brains and intestines, are more attractive than I’m making them sound.  And sure, they’re wearable – if you’re Björk.

More photos and information about the Wanderers project are here.


Nature Makes Pretty Things, Not Art

Nature is an artist & lets paint swirl together in this pic of Saturn’s rings & cloud layers – @NASA 12:23PM 23 Nov 2014

For one moment, I’m going to be that guy who insists on taking a metaphor literally. Artists are not defined by their methods, nor by their ability to make pretty things.

The job of artists is to touch draw us out through sensory experiences in ways that convey understanding, challenge preconceptions, and move us in new, unique, and effective ways. Beauty is but one tool that can serve the artistic purpose.

I cannot define art coherently. I simply know that we need both robotic space probes taking pictures of other planets and creative human beings here on Earth devoted to artistic exploration – and that we conflate the two at our own peril.

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